After weeks of growing tensions and protests over planned expulsions of Palestinians in Jerusalem, violent clashes in the flashpoint city combined with deadly exchanges of rocket fire and bombs between Gaza and Israel risk escalating into all-out war.
While casualty numbers change depending on the source, Palestinian officials said 26 people were killed in Gaza in Israeli airstrikes that began on Monday night. According to UNICEF, that number includes at least six children – four from one family. Other reports put the number of children dead at nine.
The Israeli army said it struck targets in Gaza belonging to Hamas – which has governed the Palestinian territory since 2007 – after a barrage of rockets were fired at Israel, starting on Monday evening and continuing into Tuesday. Two Israelis were reportedly killed by rockets in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon on Tuesday.
This followed a day of Monday violence that saw Israeli police storm Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque and compound, which is a holy site in Islam. Many Jews, who refer to the area as the Temple Mount, also consider the site holy. The resulting clashes left hundreds of Palestinians injured. Some police were injured as well; a police spokesperson said the forces entered the al-Aqsa compound after protesters threw rocks at them.
Israel considers East Jerusalem annexed and therefore part of Israel, while much of the international community considers it occupied alongside the rest of the West Bank and Gaza, which together are home to around five million Palestinians.
Two million of those people live in the tightly packed Gaza Strip, where recurrent conflicts, plus Israeli and Egyptian limits on goods and movement, have exacerbated extreme poverty (worsened still by COVID-19). Many Palestinians are forced to rely on aid, despite the fact that UNRWA, the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees, is consistently in financial crisis.
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Some three million people live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including around 900,000 registered refugees. Unemployment is high, as are restrictions on movement; and some communities, particularly Bedouins and herders, face regular home demolitions.
In East Jerusalem, which has long been the focus of controversy, it is extremely difficult for Palestinians to obtain building permits, and settler groups have targeted residents with court cases that can lead to eviction.
For weeks, Palestinians have been protesting both limits on gatherings during Ramadan, as well as a case that Israel’s Supreme Court was due to weigh in on Monday (now postponed) in which a settler organisation is seeking to evict Palestinian families from their homes in the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah.
The UN considers forced evictions illegal under international law. According to a 2020 UN survey cited here, at least 218 Palestinian households in East Jerusalem have eviction cases filed against them, most by settler groups.
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Monday was always expected to be a dangerous day, coming at the intersection of Jerusalem Day – which marks Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem in 1967 – and the court hearing.
Hamas had issued an ultimatum for Israeli forces to leave the al-Aqsa compound and Sheikh Jarrah by 6pm local time on Monday. Rockets – claimed by both Hamas and the militant group Islamic Jihad – were launched at Jerusalem shortly after that deadline. Hamas said in a statement that the rockets were in response to “crimes and aggression in the Holy City, and its harassment of our people in Sheikh Jarrah and al-Aqsa mosque”.
Mohammad Fityani, spokesperson for the Palestine Red Crescent Society, told The New Humanitarian that the group’s first responders had aided 612 people in Jerusalem on Monday, during protests around the city and after Israeli police stormed the al-Aqsa. This included 411 people transferred to hospitals, around 10 of which were critical cases, he said. The main causes of injury, Fityani added, were rubber bullets, tear gas, sound bombs (also known as stun grenades), and direct physical altercations with police. Fityani said six Palestine Red Crescent personnel were among the injured.
The Supreme Court postponed its hearing on the Sheikh Jarrah case, and various calls for calm have come in from the international community (with the UN Security Council a notable exception). However, after the events at al-Aqsa and the major escalation in rockets and bombs, it is unclear if a new war can be avoided.
During July and August 2014, the last time Israel fought Hamas and its allies for a sustained period of time, a UN Commission of Inquiry said 2,251 Palestinians (including 1,462 civilians) were killed. Six civilians inside Israel were also killed, as were 67 Israeli soldiers.
Fityani of the Palestine Red Crescent said the police had “put up obstacles” to reaching victims in need, including temporarily confiscating the keys to one ambulance and delaying another from parking. Israel police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld said this was “incorrect information,” adding, “the police allowed medical services, both the MDA (Magen David Adom, Israel’s national emergency service) and Palestinian medics to arrive at the scene.”
Given the unknowns of the coming days in Jerusalem, Ibrahim Abudalo, who coordinates logistics for the Palestine Red Crescent, said he was trying to give first responders a break whenever possible.
“They are doing their jobs. They are doing what they believe in, because they are humanitarians,” he said. “Many of them didn’t sleep for two or three days,” he added. “That is really great and helpful, but they are human beings”, and they need to rest.